A day of redemption for Alex Smith

January 15, 2012, 3:16 am
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SAN FRANCISCO -- Alex Smith turned the corner with the ball, ran a few steps and broke into a smile. He was going to score the winning touchdown in the biggest game of his life and assure that he would never buy a drink in San Francisco ever again.

And that was 121 seconds and two touchdowns too early for what he would ultimately feel.

As the West Bay and pockets of the rest of the Bay Area throbbed with the stunned joy of Saturdays 36-32 NFC divisional playoff win over New Orleans, Smith bought himself a perpetual get-out-of-anything card with what even the most cynical person would call the game of his life.

And in doing so, took the rest of the 49er franchise with him.

History, Vernon Davis, who caught the actual game-winning touchdown, would later call the beast that was slain Saturday. Just history. Going through what we all went through. It was a win over history, over no, over cant.

And nobody on the 49er roster has had more of each than Smith.

To be sure, this game defied literally every word that tumbled from every pundits lips this week. Nothing we believed would be true turned out to be true, in any facet of the game, which made the final quarter and its heaps of Did that just happen? plays the perfect metaphor for everything we dont know about the most over-analyzed sport on earth.

So ultimately it should have fallen to Smith, the callused campaigner, to end up the best magician of all. As much as Justin Smith was the dominant defensive player on the field, as much as Donte Whitner clocked people with great force from every angle, as much as Davis had the game of his life . . . this was the game in which Alex Smith stabbed every last demon to death.

This was the one where every fault, every fumble, every pick and every defeat could be negated with Yeah, well I got this one. And the argument ends there.

Smith didnt handle the game or even manage it; the game became unmanageable well before the fourth quarter, and was nearly a full-on piefight by the end. What Smith did, rather, was own the game -- flat own it, as though he was Drew Brees or Aaron Rodgers or Eli Manning.

He engineered an 80-yard go-ahead touchdown drive and an 85-yard winning touchdown drive in the final four minutes. He did it by finding Davis in single coverage for 37 yards and then later for 47, and he did it with QB 9, the running play that took him 28 yards to the end zone, the last 15 with that smile on his face.

And he did it with Vernon Post, the little slant from the left in which he hit Davis in stride at the goal line and let the tight end plow over Saints safety Roman Harper, who wandered around afterward free from his faculties due to the force of the collision.

Guys were so confident, Smith said afterward, surely fibbing just a bit, that as long as we had time we had a shot.

In fact, that might have been the enduring moment of this game, in the same way that the picture of Dwight Clark leaping into the air over Everson Walls 30 years ago was the enduring moment of the NFC championship game.

I knew I had to throw it hard, Smith said of the touchdown pass with the cold precision of the mechanic whose shirt he seemed to be wearing. I knew it was going to be a bang-bang play, (so) I had to stick it in there.

But while people stumbled over what to call the touchdown -- head coach Jim Harbaugh leaned toward The Throw And Catch while Davis vacillated between The Grab and the slightly more lyrical if derivative Catch 2, the actual moment that will last is the smile on Smiths face when he turned the corner on the touchdown run that made it 29-24 .

It was the moment when Smith saw the block from Kyle Williams that sprung him (I knew I was going to get the first down, and thats really all I was after) and then the field of open space before him that made the first down a meaningless achievement. It was the moment when he must have felt free at last.

And maybe it was the moment that allowed him not to give in to historical gravity when the Saints retaliated with the 66-yard touchdown to Jimmy Graham with 1:37 left. He had felt triumph in a game that finally mattered, and he believed he could feel it again.

He would need others, to be sure, as all quarterbacks must, but as Davis said afterward, This was just a lot of stress over the years, a lot of doubt, a lot of criticism, especially for Alex . . . I want to see him successful. I just want all good things to happen for him.

He means like Saturday, when the last question was answered, and his abuse-filled apprenticeship ended for good. He kicked historys ass, and helped kick-start the history that is just beginning to unfold.

Ray Ratto is a columnist for CSNBayArea.com.